When Happiness Collides
Throughout the film, different characters pursue what makes them feel satisfied, which is shown to be a healthy process. Unfortunately, as several characters chase personal fulfillment, they experience painful interpersonal conflict. The self-invented Colonel Tom Parker is obsessed with creating “the greatest show on earth,” while making a lot of money to gamble away—that makes him happy. However, to get what he wants, Parker often manipulates Elvis in harmful ways just to make more cash. The pop-star Elvis is most concerned about creating music that appeals to him and putting on an elaborate show—that makes him happy. He also acts manipulatively and goes to dangerous lengths to perform where and how he wants to. Pricilla (Elvis’s wife), longs to have a husband who is present and can be a loving father—that makes her happy. She is willing to endure a lot to see this happen, eventually being willing to get a divorce to find the husband she wants.
In each of these individual stories, the desire for happiness seems acceptable—it’s not hurting anyone. However, when the desire one person has to be happy collides with an obstacle, interpersonal conflict arises and people get hurt. Conflict usually occurs when we cannot get what we desire, so we scheme and try our hardest to get what we want (James 4:1-3).
There are many ethical philosophies that value the interest and happiness of the individual as the ultimate goal in life.2 Whether or not any of the people portrayed in the film gave much thought to morality is unlikely, but the thinking of living life for the sake of achievement and contentment is prevalent in our world today. Conflict often occurs when what makes us happy comes into conflict with what makes other people happy and we cannot get our way. This superficial issue points to a problem beneath the surface: an inconsistent moral belief.
What’s Wrong with Being Happy?
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with being happy, personal fulfillment for its own sake is an insufficient and inconsistent goal in life. In fact, there are several things wrong with believing this is the goal of life.
First, it is not uncommon for people to behave against their best interests.3 For example, Elvis pursues his happiness by performing as many shows as he can and partying as much as he can. Unfortunately, this causes extreme exhaustion and results in hospitalization and drug abuse. Being happy while performing as many shows as possible caused Elvis to act in a way that was against his best interest, which ended up being one of the causes of his death.
Second, humans are not able to see the ultimate result of their actions and thoughts. Our best intentions and ideas will not always lead to fulfillment or contentment.4 No matter how much money Parker made, he always wanted one more cent. At the end of his life, he did not see nearly the amount that he made throughout his career. His best efforts to make money did not end up providing the stability and gratification that he wanted in life.
Third, good intentions don’t always produce good results. In fact, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to evil outcomes.5 Ends do not necessarily justify the means. Take Elvis’s daughter Lisa for example, she was indirectly and unintentionally hurt by Elvis, Parker, and her mother, Pricilla. Elvis’s drug addiction and lifestyle made him distant and uninvolved in her life and ultimately caused her to prematurely lose her father. Parker’s manipulation of the Presley family contributed to family dysfunction and abuse, which affected Lisa. Despite best intentions, Pricilla’s divorce of Elvis also affected Lisa.
Elvis’s life fell apart tragically, partly because his morality was inconsistent with reality, reminding us that “A true theory of ethics ought to be livable for human beings in a sinful world where right is not always easy to live out.”6 Even though a morality that prizes the pursuit of happiness fell apart in this case, it is not always true that personal fulfillment is wrong. In fact, pleasure and enjoyment are things which God gave to humanity. The power of happiness is not found in the feeling itself—as many believe—but rather in the subject of our delight.
What Makes You Happy?
Although culture may encourage you to find satisfaction in “living your best life,” Christians in the past have proclaimed something different: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”7 This is a radically different goal in life than the pursuit of personal affluence or feeling good.
This teleological ethic is primarily a responsibility to God and others, rather than a responsibility to self. Jesus’s instruction to love God and others as the greatest commandment glorifies God and is the foundation of Christian ethics (Luke 10:27). The task of a Christian is to love God and others by upholding an ethic that proceeds from the nature of God’s character. For Christians, who believe that God is the keeper of all that is good, anything that is authentically in line with his character and nature will inevitably be what is best for the world.8
In imitating Jesus to glorify God, we experience a focus on God’s glory that allows us to find the joy that other ethics are constantly searching for. A famous theologian once wrote, “In declaring by word and deed the perfections, especially the moral perfections of the Most High, man finds true happiness.”9In other words, by following God’s commands and imitating his character, Christians find authentic joy. The Christian ethic can be difficult at times, something Jesus warns about (Matthew 7:14, ESV), but it leads to an abundant life of joy (John 10:10).
Ironically, the way to contentment for yourself is by focusing on loving God and others. Through Christ’s example and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to glorify God and love people, resulting in boundless joy and human flourishing far more meaningful than merely the pursuit of transitory pleasure.
Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!